Hope Is Contagious
By Asian Prisoner Support Committee
Illustrations by Natalie Bui
In Winter 2017, members of the Asian Prisoner Support Committee (APSC) went to visit their friend Borey “Peejay” Ai1, a Cambodian (Khmer) person detained at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) immigration jail in northern California. During the visit, it was clear that ICE had worn Peejay down: he was skinnier, his eyes bloodshot and droopy, his voice soft and muffled behind the visiting room glass. Peejay had been denied bond and had just lost his Convention Against Torture (CAT)2 case. All signs pointed to his imminent deportation.
It was in these moments that we began to search for hope on behalf of Peejay—and we found it in the hopeful struggles of the community around us: in Ny Nourn3, a survivor of domestic violence who fought ICE in a landmark case; in Khmer families in the Bay Area, who created a movement to free their loved ones; in Anoop Prasad4, a fearless immigration attorney and advocate; and in Peejay himself, who continues to fight against all odds. While most of APSC’s direct experience comes from organizing struggles in California, we were also inspired by Khmer anti-deportation organizing efforts in other states, like those of Many Uch5 in Washington and Jenny Srey6, Montha Chum7, and the campaign #ReleaseMN8 in Minnesota. Learning more about these freedom stories reinvigorated us to continue fighting for Peejay’s freedom and countless other Cambodian Americans who would be detained in subsequent ICE raids.
As deportations rise for Southeast Asian Americans, we want to show how families, organizers, and formerly incarcerated individuals have successfully fought for their freedom—and show that others can fight and win, too. The following stories highlight individuals who have survived, persisted, and resisted the many fronts of state-sponsored violence. They are stories of deep pain, stories of triumph, and most importantly, stories of hope. By sharing these stories with you, we hope that you find inspiration to fight for your freedom and the freedom of your loved ones.
Because when one person’s hope results in their freedom, hope becomes contagious.
After serving a state prison sentence, many immigrants and refugees face a kind of double jeopardy. They are directly transferred from prison to immigration jail, where they stay incarcerated for an unpredictable amount of time. It could be months or even years. Some people have been imprisoned in ICE for over 10 years while fighting their deportation cases.
Many was immediately transferred to immigration detention to be deported to Cambodia upon his release from prison in 19978. Because Cambodia was not accepting any deportees at that time, Many was stuck indefinitely in immigration detention. He, along with many others participated in hunger strikes and a landmark legal challenge to indefinite detention, which finally allowed his temporary release in 1999. In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that no one could be kept longer than six months without reasonable possibility of being deported (Zadvydas v. Davis). Following years of advocacy, community building, and organizing, Many officially received a governor’s pardon in 2010, leading ICE to terminate his deportation case in May 2019.
Peejay and Ny were both survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide and former “lifers” who were directly transferred to ICE at the same time. After hearing about Ny’s story through Anoop (who provided legal representation and advice for both of them), Peejay began to write to her, hoping to build another line of support to sustain them both.
Sending and receiving “kites” connects prisoners with the outside world, or even to another prison or jail. A handwritten letter means that someone is thinking about you.
Leaving a prison or immigration jail can be bittersweet—freedom comes at the cost of leaving behind dear friends and loved ones, some of whom may remain incarcerated, and others deported to foreign countries far away. Ny Nourn, a former lifer and domestic violence survivor who won her deportation case, has continued to fight for other detainees after she was released.
Two Minnesotans, Jenny Srey and Montha Chum, had their husband and brother picked up by ICE for old criminal convictions. For people like Jenny Srey and Montha Chum, fighting for their loved ones resulted in the formation of the #ReleaseMN8—a campaign to release eight Cambodians picked up by ICE. They organized families in Minnesota and won the release of three people. They continue to support and fight for the five who were deported—and others who face similar struggles.
Jenny Srey, Montha Chum, and Ny Nourn continue to fight for impacted folks who remain behind bars. They exemplify how women—those who have loved ones in ICE detention, and those who have endured the violence of the incarceration and deportation systems—are the ones who lead the charge in the anti-deportation movement.
Hope Is Contagious
On March 13th, four Oakland Khmer community members were arrested by ICE in front of their loved ones. The Khmer elders felt the familiar pain of separation, a deep and scarred wound that went back to generations of war, genocide, and forced migration. They watched the younger generations, now cut by a similar pain of family separation. Our Bay Area Khmer community began to organize, mobilize, and protest against deportations in an unprecedented way; but the fight to keep our families together is not new. Time and time again, our community has drawn strength from the love of our families in the face of war, displacement, or ICE detention. They chose to follow hope.
“Bah Yung Pra Chang, Ung Niek Chanegh!” Families, friends, attorneys, and community members rallied at politicians’ offices, City Halls, and community centers. They were fighting to prevent the worst-case scenario—ICE deporting their family members to a country from which they had escaped as refugees many years ago. With uncertainty and fear thick in the air, families knew they had to protect each other, love each other, and fight for each other. This sparked the rally chant families shouted at countless actions, “Bah Yung Pra Chang, Ung Niek Chanegh. When we fight, we win!” This chant traveled from a family event at the Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants (CERI) office, to the San Francisco ICE facility, to the Governor’s office in Sacramento, and to Oakland and San Francisco City Council meetings. In response to the pressure, Governor Newsom issued two pardons, and two other Khmer detainees won post-conviction relief. When all four Bay Area Khmer detainees were freed and made safe from deportations, the community reunited and chanted one more time, “Bah Yung Pra Chang, Ung Niek Chanegh. When we fight, we win!”
“Worth Fighting For”
Profile on Jenny Srey and ReleaseMN8 by Chanida Phaengdara Potter
“This is the Story of Many Uch”
By Aditi Bhandari
“Dreams Detained, in Her Words”
The effects of detention and deportation on Southeast Asian American women and families
A Report by SEARAC and NAPAWF (PDF)
“He was deported for a crime he committed at 19. Now a 30-year-old Cambodian refugee is back home in California”
By Charles Dunst, Los Angeles Times
CAMPAIGNS & TOOLS
Sign the petition: Urge Governor Newsom to end California’s collaboration with ICE
Southeast Asian American Solidarity Toolkit
A Guide to Resisting Deportations and Detentions from the #ReleaseMN8 Campaign
Southeast Asian Raids
Resources for Refugees Facing Deportation to Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos
Guide to California Pardons
Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus